Book review: Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

When a serial crime series writer turns her clever mind to a standalone novel, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to be something special.

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

And top US author Karin Slaughter, noted for her blistering Will Trent books, doesn’t disappoint in this dark, atmospheric thriller set in the malevolent, bigoted world of Atlanta Police Department in the murky 1970s.

Cop Town is Slaughter’s first standalone and it’s a corker... two women officers, one of them a rookie, pitched against the male might and institutionalised sexism of the cynical old guard, and risking everything to track down a psychopathic cop killer.

Using the unforgettable backdrop of Atlanta in 1974, a violent, criminal city on the cusp of revolutionary changes to its pernicious social and racial culture, this is a fast-paced, epic story full of pin-sharp observation, cynical humour and an extraordinarily percipient sense of time and place.

Kate Murphy comes from one of the richest areas of Atlanta but since her husband was killed in the Vietnam War, she has been at a loose end and longs to find work to support herself.

Joining the city’s racist, homophobic, sexist police force wouldn’t be every woman’s choice of a job but Kate, wearing a uniform that was deliberately assigned to her even though it’s three sizes too big, is determined to run the gauntlet of abuse and do her bit.

The police department is in the midst of seismic changes with a new, black commissioner determined to break the ‘good-ol’-boy’ system and its white power structure which controls the force.

Kate is partnered with Maggie Lawson who followed her uncle and brother into the ranks to prove her worth but seems to accept the everyday sexism and harassment that go with police work.

Poor Kate couldn’t have started her new job on a worse day. One of Atlanta’s most beloved cops has been gunned down and his brothers in blue are out for blood. The patrolman is the latest victim of a madman nicknamed the Shooter, a serial killer targeting police officers.

When Maggie and Kate are sidelined in the search for the murderer, their anger and pride finally reach boiling point. With the killer poised to strike again and with the help and encouragement of hard-nosed, plain clothes policewoman Gail Patterson, the two go back to basics and pursue their own line of investigation.

It means venturing into Atlanta’s darkest quarters, interrogating some of the city’s most violent criminals and risking their reputations, their jobs... and their lives.

Cop Town is so much more than a standard crime thriller... mesmeric scene-setting, powerful characterisation, a menacing sense of misogyny, a police force consumed by bloodlust and a heart-stopping dénouement are evidence of a writer at the top of her game.

The action is confined to just four days but within that brief window of time, Slaughter manages to breathe fire into not just a city on the edge but into a malicious mindset that dominated every walk of life from high to low, and from home to work.

Moving, darkly funny and painfully honest, Cop Town is a masterclass in top-notch crime writing and one of the best thrillers on the shelves this summer.

(Century, hardback, £18.99)